Culture

Portraits of resilience, coexistence

BEIRUT: “Portraits of Resilience,” an exhibition by Sam Tarling, assembles 25 photos, all highlighting the resilience of Syrian and Lebanese communities living side by side on the margins of this country. Now up at Station Beirut in Jisr al-Wati, the project is a collaboration between the U.K. photojournalist and the Danish Refugee Council.

This independent, nonprofit NGO works on various projects around Lebanon to help its vast number of refugees, while building relationships and relieving tensions between the Syrian and Lebanese communities.

“We wanted to do a project as we entered the eighth year of the Syrian crisis ... to show the resilience of both ... the refugee community and the Lebanese community,” Marya Yammine, communications officer of DRC told The Daily Star.

“We’ve noticed this resilience throughout our projects and saw how much the people want to work and how willing they are to survive despite all the challenges they are facing. So we thought it would be nice to show the stories of these communities,” Yammine added.

Tarling began working with the DRC in November 2017. The exhibition mingles photos he took in collaboration with the NGO with others he captured independently in 2011, from the start of the Syrian crisis.

Many of the photos show Lebanese and Syrian communities working together on DRC projects to build public gardens, dig irrigation channels and the like.

“Often you go to settlements and there are people with nothing,” Tarling said. “They are all just trying to get by and have a normal life but they don’t have any opportunities.

“To see them being given the opportunity to learn new skills, just to get out and do an honest day’s work, is really nice and you can tell they are really kind of happy to have that opportunity.”

Yammine described how many of the projects work to ease tensions between the two communities and counter the growing resentment toward Syrians in Lebanon.

“You will notice through the stories of each person that many Lebanese are now friends with Syrians through these projects,” she explained. “There are many common things between these communities and they are much more important than the differences.”

Tarling’s pictures highlight the striking resilience of many of the people who have lost so much but fight to uphold some semblance of their life before the war.

“It was amazing seeing communities coming together, which is becoming rarer and rarer here,” Tarling recalled, “and seeing people able to do something for themselves, rather than being helpless is great.

“From the very beginning the idea of people’s loss of dignity has been a huge part of the Syrian crisis. It was a middle-class crisis. ... I remember talking to a teacher who was doing this project here to build an irrigation channel. He was doing manual labor but he was so happy to be doing it because it was the first work he’d had in five years.

“But he’s a teacher! He should be teaching, not digging a trench.”

Along the far wall of the gallery stand three photographs, each depicting a portrait of a woman standing confidently. Two of the portraits practically mirror one another – a Lebanese and a Syrian, both standing with their hands on their hips.

The first shows Akkar native Amara Taleb, who worked with Syrian refugees to build a public garden in the town of Hrar, smiling in a construction hat and jacket.

“She’s Lebanese [and] I thought she was really cool. When do you see a woman working in a construction site wearing a hard hat in Lebanon?

“If there is one good thing that might come out of the Syrian war,” he mused, “it might be a little more towards furthering the emancipation of women, because they’ve had to adopt [new] roles.”

Tarling said it was especially nice to see Lebanese and Syrians working together in Akkar.

“It was really refreshing to see, especially in places like Akkar,” he said, “where there are more Syrian refugees than there are [residents], so imagine that tense situation.”

“It’s the most vulnerable region in Lebanon,” Yammine concurred.

“It’s amazing how they are communicating with each other, hosting each other.”

The second shows Reem, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee from Deir al-Zor, inside her tent in an informal settlement in the Bekka Valley.

“We caught her outside bringing in her washing because it was raining and then she just struck this really strong pose.”

Wearing a hijab that covers her face, Reem’s resilience is conveyed through her eyes, which gaze confidently from the frame.

“Portraits of Resilience” is up at Station Beirut until May 27, 12-7 p.m.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 25, 2018, on page 16.

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